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The Nutcracker Series: Freud, Hoffmann, and The Uncanny

The Nutcracker is a beloved Christmas event for the whole family. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that the original production of the work, involving such luminaries as Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa (who was probably the librettist), was a critical failure. The problem was that the story had none of the cohesion of E. T. A. Hoffmann's original. Events in the original ballet are simply left unexplained. As Riley puts it:

"Certain parts of the libretto lack rationale. There is no justification for the fantastic events which begin near the end of the first scene and continue to the end of the ballet. Whence the Mouse King and his antagonism toward the nutcracker? And what happens next in Confiturembourg? Does Clara ever leave? Does she marry Prince Nutcracker? What of her parents? The ballet ends without any of the questions being answered" ("On Meaning in Nutcracker," Dance Research, 1984).

These problems were so serious that Tchaikovsky wished to be released from the project, "possibly because it resisted any interpretation deeper than that of a simple child's tale." Balanchine partially overcame these shortcomings by, in effect, sweetening the ballet further and making a clean break between the real world and Clara's dream world. The result is a story that is very different from Hoffmann's original.

Hoffmann was one of the great Romantic literary figures whose work delves into the psychological and metaphysical features of the world. One theme is this: Do different ways of seeing the world constitute a break with reality (mental illness) or are they simply differences in perspective which may be socially stigmatized but are not inherently wrong? (A deeper question that Hoffman raises is whether or not the "conventional" perspective is itself the one which breaks with reality.) Hoffmann's insights were so significant that he influenced a number of psychoanalysts, including Freud who called him the "unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature."

For Freud, the uncanny is the revelation of what is hidden or concealed (repressed). In Hoffmann's story Nutcracker and Mouse King, Marie (Clara, in the ballet) comes to view the nutcracker she is given by her Godfather Drosselmeier as engaged in an epic battle with the seven-headed Mouse King. When he -- the nutcracker -- finally prevails, Marie is ecstatic. Marie is convinced of the reality of these events. But when she enthusiastically relates them to her family, she is told to never speak of them again. Hoffman then tells us this:

"Though Marie was not allowed to talk about her adventures, the images of that wondrous fairyland hovered around her in sweetly rushing billows and gracious, charming sounds. She looked at everything once more, focusing sharply. And so, in lieu of playing as usual, she sat there, quiet and rigid and deeply self-absorbed."

It is not implausible that what Hoffmann here describes is the beginning of a psychotic break. And indeed, shortly thereafter, Marie proclaims aloud her love for the nutcracker and faints. When she awakens, she is in bed. At this point, the veracity of her visions is confirmed and she is led off by the nutcracker-become-Prince to the Kingdom of Dolls. Hoffman ends the story on the following note:

"Marie supposedly is still queen of a land where you can see sparkling Christmas Forests everywhere as well as translucent Marzipan Castles -- in short, the most splendid and most wondrous things, if you only have the right eyes to see them with."

The most plausible interpretation of this ending is that Marie is lost to her visions. But two things are worth noting. First, Marie is the heroine of the story.; and, second, Hoffmann seems to regard Marie's visions as good things. Indeed, he seems to suggest that it is we who are limited because we lack the "right eyes" for seeing the wondrous things she sees. So in the end, perhaps it is us who are lost to our far more mundane visions.

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